We arrived in Sucre on Friday (2/24), just in time for four days of Carnaval celebrations.
Every year Sucre celebrates Carnaval non-stop from the Saturday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Here are a few things we’ve witnessed and learned:
- Marching Bands & Parades: Marching bands consisting of primarily drums and brass instruments constantly wander the streets, surrounded by members of whatever group has hired them to play. Any organization, team, family, person, etc can (and does) hire these bands to join them as they parade in the streets, causing gridlock throughout the day (side note: there did not seem to be any designated route(s), just large groups of people meandering about with one group yielding to another when they simultaneously came to an intersection). The bands are paid by the hour and one local tour guide estimated there are likely 100 to 150 bands performing during Carnaval. Since most of Sucre consists of building-lined streets with no open space outside of the main plazas, the noise resonates quite well whether you want it to or not. We could usually hear the bands start up by midday and continue into the late hours of the night. From our hostel room we could usually hear at least two bands at once. Every. Single.Day.
- Fireworks: Just in case the marching bands weren’t enough for your aural delight, parade-goers also set off fireworks at random times. And not just cute little sparklers. Some fireworks were so intense they set off car alarms and made the lady next to me scream while eating dinner in the hostel courtyard. I never actually saw any fireworks that released a pretty light display, which makes me fairly certain they are strictly for purposes of making noise. Fireworks were typically heard in the same timeframe as the bands (i.e., always).
- Water balloons: Sucre’s Carnaval is said to be the world’s largest water fight. By the time the festivities are in full swing, nearly everyone is armed with water balloons, squirt guns, and/or spray foam. Not only do people attack at street-level, but also by spraying or throwing water from balconies above. We also had to be on alert with passing vehicles. We quickly learned to watch out for car windows being rolled down as they approached since it was a clear sign of an impending drive-by ballooning. Regarding water balloons I feel very lucky for two reasons: I managed to only get hit once, and the balloon appeared to be filled with relatively clean water and not stagnant pond water (Alastair and I both gave my wet clothing a sniff test afterward; they passed). During and after Carnaval the streets are thoroughly littered with bits of broken balloons, like environmentally-unfriendly confetti.
- Offerings: On Mardi Gras, the last day of Carnaval, families and businesses perform cha’lla, a ceremony of thanking Pachamama (Mother Earth) and providing offerings in hopes of a prosperous year ahead. We were lucky enough to see this traditional ceremony performed at our hostel as part of their annual routine, not as any type of theatrical performance for tourists (we just happened to be waiting in the courtyard when they were doing it). Two members of staff walked through the courtyard with a tray of smouldering offerings, walked up to each hostel room, and allowed the smoke from the offerings to waft in. Afterward, they set the tray on the ground below the hostel’s trademark sign where it continued to smoulder. They had two bottles filled with liquid (one clear and one dark brownish-red) which they poured at each corner of the tray and then drank from. My research tells me that the traditional liquids used are alcohol and blood but I did not ask what the hostel’s bottles contained. While I don’t know if all cha’llas look the same, we did see other businesses with smouldering offerings in their doorways that looked quite similar to those of our hostel’s.
- Decorations: Also on Mardi Gras, balloons (filled with air, not water) and streamers are strewn about to decorate houses, businesses, and vehicles. From a North American point of view, it makes the entire city look like it’s celebrating a child’s birthday and like everyone driving a car just got married.
- Closures: We knew we would be arriving in Sucre during Carnaval and that it may interfere with our intended plans. What we didn’t realize, however, was that every church, museum, and other tourist attraction (including the dinosaur park, bummer!) would be closed during the entire four-day celebration. There was a nice lookout with an arched walkway and large courtyard in the Recoleta neighborhood we were able to access, but we had to forego all other plans. We did manage to find a tour company willing to take us and two other couples from our hostel on a hike to the Maragua Crater on Monday (2/27). That turned out to be a nice escape from the craziness of the city and a great opportunity to be exposed to interesting cultures and landscapes.
After Tuesday, everything returned to business as usual and the city felt much calmer and quieter. Although it was overwhelming to arrive in an unfamiliar city (and country) during its annual height of party-mode, I never felt threatened by any of the crowds, even when successfully targeted with a water balloon or enthusiastically offered a drink of tiger’s milk by a drunk woman who called me “mama.” Despite the copious amounts of alcohol consumed, we never saw any mad or aggressive drunks, any fights, or any vandalism during the entire time we were there.